Four-wheel drift by Barnard Browne
Beer in hand, Graham and I cheered on the planes as they rounded the windward shore of the big island. Skimming the top of my apartment block, they hooked through the clear air to touchdown on the far side of the bay before discharging their cargo of commuters returning from Honololu. Their crab-like paths put me in mind of the four-wheel drift used by Mercedes racers in the 1930s.
This was my home while working on the telescopes that jostle for space at the summit of Mauna Kea, the old volcano that dominates the north of the Island of Hawaii. Here the air is salted by the waves rolling in from far Alaska that lap the base of the block. Tucked inside the headland, it was presumed safe from the Tsunamis that periodically ravage the island’s capital.
The island is ringed by pineapple plantations, banyan trees, coral reefs teeming with psychedelic fish, manta rays, sharks and turtles - and astronomers who run the colossal telescopes that sit above the cloud layer that drapes the flanks of the moribund volcano. Further south, new land is formed as lava pours through subterranean tubes to meet the ocean.
While at the summit, you may notice that you are gently dying. Apart from humans, only the Wekiu fly can live here, feeding on microcarrion wafted up from the tropical paradise miles below. There used to be mouflon here, but now the only evidence of their existence are clusters of cartridge casings on the scrubby lava pavements and a fleeting memory of a mother and lamb disappearing round a cinder-cone on my first visit many years ago.
Thunderheads flicker and flash like translucent galleons as they slowly the cloud layer beneath the summit.
At this height - 4200m - there is so little oxygen that ascending even a short flight of stairs leaves you winded. It is ironic that although probably the best place in the world to collect light from the edge of the universe 14 billion light years away, it is also one of the worst places to see it with the naked eye because your brain and retina are starved of oxygen - although a crafty sniff from an oxygen bottle briefly brings out the stars again. Furthermore, your judgment is impaired leading to the entertaining spectacle of senior colleagues making fools of themselves.
More serious is the possibility of permanent damage as blood vessels in the brain swell and leak. It is surely no coincidence that has it was here that I first realised I had Parkinson’s disease.
Our team had already built an instrument to analyse light from one of the largest and newest of these telescopes. This intricate amalgam of metal and glass splits the incoming light into a rainbow of colours – a spectrum - from which we can measure the mix of stars in each island universe and its distance to the cosmic ground-zero where we stood. Graham and I would now fit a device the size of a small suitcase containing thousands of flexible glass fibres, each the thickness of a human hair. With this add-on, we would be able to dissect the brighter galaxies to see how gas is funnelled into the supermassive black holes at their heart - like lava pouring through lava tubes.
A few nights later we were back at sea-level, heady with oxygen. After toasting the returning commuters as they executed their crab-like drift overhead, I settled down to sleep.
I was wrenched into consciousness by the phone. I was lying across the bed with a muzzy head and a sky still puzzlingly blue. It was my wife - but it was not like her to mistake the time difference. “Just turn on the TV” she said finally after failing to make me understand. Several hours later I finally realised that I was not watching a disaster movie but the real-time slaughter of thousands of New Yorkers. It was September 11, 2001.
Later, I met up with the rest of the team in a Sushi bar in the back streets. I was feeling sick but the Americans were quite calm, refusing to let themselves be panicked by mere atrocities. By now my confusion had gelled into a much more parochial concern: I was due to fly back to the UK the next day. With reports of cancelled planes and security lock-downs I feared the worst.
Ten years earlier….
There was a time when we only had to worry about natural catastrophes.
The summit of the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands is only a third of the elevation of Maua Kea so there is enough oxygen for your brain to work. There are real plants underfoot – mostly aromatic yellow broom – and live mouflon moving slowly in jangling herds. Like Hawaii, it volcanic - but only mildly so despite the huge caldera that dominates the north of the island.
However it is perilously steep (characterised by the ratio of summit height to coastal circumference) and is predicted to collapse into the sea within the next few thousand years to create the mother and father of all tsunamis.
The observatory gets its name - Los Muchachos - from the child-sized columns at the summit. To sit on the Roque with only swifts for company as clouds cascade in slow motion over the far edge of the caldera is the perfect way to prepare your mind for a journey to the stars. As the dusk comes on, the domes open like exotic blooms to harvest the incoming light.
Conditions at the summit can be hard to read. The thin air and tropical latitude can cause painful sunburn. Thirty minutes with my shirt off was enough to burn a sharp-edged reversed image of the book I had been reading on my chest. But it can also be so cold that ice grows rapidly on any structure caught inside a cloud or fogbank that decides to well-up from the caldera below. In these circumstances, abandoning the summit is a rather futile strategy since even the sturdiest 4x4 trucks can do no more than execute graceful pirouettes as they try to negotiate the icy switchbacks. Worse still are the clearest winter nights when the stars sparkle with mocking intensity, but the dome cannot be opened due to the accumulation of ice.
For a month, I was effectively in charge of what was then the second-most powerful telescope in the world. We had built a new instrument for it - a smaller and fibreless version of the later Hawaian spectrometer – to split the ancient light into its constituent colours.
But if something broke, there was only me to fix it with the help of the telescope operator - shuttling back and forth between the utter darkness of the observing floor and the control room.
Somethings I couldn’t fix. When the telescope decided it was going to try and track an object below the horizon (which is of course impossible!), I could only pass the problem on and wait for the software fix.
Eventually, I started to crack under the weight of executing several challenging observing programmes and fixing the instrument at the same time. I started to pray for bad weather so I could get some sleep – the ultimate heresy for an astronomer!
My wish was granted in abundance. On the day of my anticipated departure, I awoke to find the Residencia – where we slept and ate - surrounded by a moat. I started off down the road with my precious cargo of magnetic tapes on which the data was stored, but soon found the road blocked by an avalanche. Just as I began to fear that I would never escape the summit, I saw another vehicle pull up at the other side of the missing section of road. So, like a Victorian explorer with a team of native bearers, my goods were manhandled over the avalanche to the other vehicle. Afterwards, I realised how risky this had been but I got away with it. We set off down the mountain, but the airport was closed and I could not get out for another three days. I had a sort of nervous breakdown, fuelled by heavy drinking. Even then, as the storms continued, flood water would gush into whichever bar I had taken refuge - following me like a vengeful spirit.
My trip back from Hawaii on 9/11 was blessedly simple in comparison. I managed to get back home within a day, before the full security lock-down was put in place.